Tourism potential in Tazara railway yet to be exploited

Tuesday October 11 2016

A delegation comprising Chinese government

A delegation comprising Chinese government reprepsentatives, journalists and government officials in the transport sector disembarking from a Tazara train at Makuwani Station in Selous Game Reserve recently as the transport facility marked its 40th anniversary. PHOTO| SYRIACUS BUGUZI 

By Syriacus Buguzi @buguzi

Dar es Salaam. For a tourist seeking direction through websites of major tour firms on “How to get to the Selous Game Reserve,” there is one most reliable option—taking a flight.

A road trip is suggested too, but there is little mention of train travel, despite the presence of a railway line leading to the game reserve.

Yet, even the recommended road safari, which would have been a good option for sightseers, comes with a discouraging caution that says, “The trip (by road) is bumpy and uncomfortable and will take a full day.”

In that case, most visitors rely on the package of flights from Dar es Salaam, Arusha, and Zanzibar. Despite being expensive, an air safari is the quickest way to the famous Selous—one of the largest faunal reserves of the world, located in the south of Tanzania.

However, the demand for reliable ground transportation to the game by railway line is now slowly gaining momentum, as the government embarks on mega plans to revive the Tanzania Zambia Railway (Tazara) and make it more commercially viable. Recently, as Tazara commemorated its 40th anniversary, the corporation arranged a trial trip to the game reserve by train, taking on board journalists, Chinese government representatives, students and top public officials in the transportation sector.

Tazara’s deputy managing director Betram Kiswaga who was on the expedition, said, “We organised a train ride to Selous Game Reserve, to prove to people on board that there is great potential for tourism business in the railway transport sector along the Tazara line.”

Indeed, as the train set off for Selous from Dar es Salaam at around 9.00am, there was great adventure for people on board. And for Mr Iddy Mwema, a local journalist, travelling by train offered him an opportunity to experience the country’s natural landscape.

It was Mwema’s first ever trip to a game reserve in Tanzania. “The train passed through bushes. I could see the hills, the trees and in some places, I could tell how people in the country live,’’ said Mwema as he recounted his travel experience by railway to The Citizen.

The operators admitted, though, that the train wasn’t actually designed to carry tourists. It wasn’t therefore, a ride that would provide a very special touring experience for visitors.

Mr Mwema says, “it wasn’t that comfortable, though I could enjoy the outside view of the countryside. There was a lot of noise as the train moved fast. I could not easily make a conversation with my closest neighbours as the wagons bounced on the railings. All the way, I had to speak on top of my voice to be able to communicate,’’ he noted. But to many, it was an eventful 4 to 5-hour voyage—a panoramic tour of the Tanzania rural landscape. Those who spoke to The Citizen narrated how they had enjoyed the beauty of the bush-land, before making a stop at the Makuwani Station in Morogoro Region at around 1pm.

Soon as the train came to standstill at Makuwani, the tour guides were found waiting, ready to take whoever had disembarked from the train for a bus-drive through the game reserve. Tour guides had a field’s day at work, explaining to everybody the beautiful nature of Selous. Being a short excursion, there was no chance to experience hotel accommodation facilities and explore the rich history of the game—and probably, much more.

It was a 3-hour road trip through the game, before returning to Makuwani for another round of the train expedition back to Dar es Salaam on the same day.

In the words of Ms Riziki Mahita who was on the trip, “There was much more that people could have explored but time wasn’t enough.”

As the train headed back to Dar es Salaam the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Works, Transport and Communications, Dr Leonard Chamuriho, who was aboard, gave his account of the trip, as he was interviewed by The Citizen. Dr Chamuriho appeared upbeat during the interview, especially as he revealed the government’s plans to diversify the railway transport sector and make it more enterprising.

He said the Chinese government has sponsored a feasibility study that looked at the business opportunities along that Tazara line, and one of them was tourism. The Citizen learnt that this week, from October 17, a team of transport experts the government are expected to travel to China to join their counterparts in the Asian country as they work out a strategy that would help to revive Tazara into a commercially viable business enterprise. Tazara has remained to be a “failed” corporation for years now. For the past 40 years, it boasts of having transported about 28.4 million tons of good and 47.5 million passengers. It was designed with capacity to handle five million tonnes of freight per annum, with a 1067mm-gauge that allows through traffic operations with other Southern African railways.

During the 7th East and Central Africa Roads and Rail Infrastructure Summit last month, it was revealed that Tazara needed an urgent capital injection of $250 million for rehabilitation of the railway line and equipment.

Data shows that the corporation has been working below capacity for many years, whereby it can now ferry less than five per cent of cargo handled at Dar es Salaam port—with 1.3 million tonnes of freight per year instead of the 5 million.

Tazara railway line was also originally designed to carry three million passengers annually, but the current traffic is only 450,000 passengers.

Dr Chamuriho told The Citizen that two governments—China and Tanzania—are now going an extra mile to look into ways of merging the transport sector with the business opportunities located in areas where the railway line passes.

However, as he tried to explain the ways the railway sector can create business opportunities from tourism, it did not come out clearly that ground work had been laid down to kick-start the merging of tourism with railway transport.

He said, “You see, this is not an issue of the Transport Ministry alone. It’s an idea that the ministry dealing with tourism should have started looking into. We cannot move forward if we are segmented.” Tazara deputy managing director Betram Kiswaga points out barriers that must be surmounted in the efforts to merge the railway transport sector with business opportunities for tourism.

He begins with an example from South Africa, saying, “You see, South Africa’s Tourist train, Rovos, can come up to Dar es Salaam with tourists. But it’s more expensive for tourists to afford a train ticket compared to boarding a flight.”“Tazara would have wished to acquire special tourist wagons in the long run and diversify into tourism business but it cannot achieve that alone, there must be collaboration with the Tanzania National Parks Authority and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism. It requires a huge investment to run a tourist train,’’ he says further.

“Even if we decided to focus on domestic tourists, it would still be difficult to run the business. How many Tanzanians will be able to afford an expensive train ticket?’’ he queries although he says, he is yet to ascertain how much in terms of economic gains the tourism sector would generate from investing in railway transport.

He believes tourists would be much interested to visit in the game reserve and use ground transportation but the business hidden in that tourism potential requires strong political will. Selous, named after an Englishman Sir Frederick Selous, a famous big game hunter and early conservationist who died in 1917 while fighting against Germans during the First World War, is a rich game reserve. The tour guides say, some of the typical animals such as the African bush elephants, masai lions, can be found in larger numbers in Selous than in any other game reserve in Africa.